Letting the source call the shots

As a reporter, I was taught that people you interview give up control of their words the moment they’re spoken. This was the trapdoor model: The lid slammed shut, and even if moments later the source had speaker’s remorse, the words belonged to me. I exaggerate, but not much.

As an academic now I’m more often a source than a reporter, and I’m grateful when reporters read back what they’re going to use from our interviews. Sometimes they misheard me. And sometimes my comments—once stripped of tone and inflection—don’t really say what I was trying to say, so I suggest changes. The objective, it would seem, isn’t to record stenographically whatever I said, but to convey what I meant.

That’s a slippery proposition, but usually the point of an interview is to learn somebody’s views, not to catch them sounding stupid. Because few of us speak in well-turned prose and we often grope and fumble, the idea of a reporter’s treating an interview as a collaboration toward a common goal—clarity—isn’t a terrible thing.

So to today’s media mini-scandal, exposed recently in a disturbing New York Times article about a growing insistence among top politicos on having the last word over what’s reported from their interviews. “Now, with a millisecond Twitter news cycle and an unforgiving, gaffe-obsessed media culture, politicians and their advisers are routinely demanding that reporters allow them final editing power over any published quotations,” reporter Jeremy Peters wrote.

Peters mentioned officials who red-pencil obscenities, squeeze back long-winded comments, and insist on deletions, not because they were misquoted but because the remarks are deemed ill-timed or tactically unwise. “Organizations like Bloomberg, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Reuters and The New York Times have all consented to interviews under such terms,” Peters wrote.

This, of course, isn’t about clarity. It’s about strengthening official control over news to where the idea of an independent, adversarial press becomes yet another fairy tale beloved by civics teachers and long-retired editors. Not only Continue reading “Letting the source call the shots”